On Joan Didion’s Birthday

(While I’m enjoying the holidays, I’m sharing some of my posts from my previous blog.  I hope you enjoy them.  This post is from December 2009, though Didion’s birthday is actually December 5th.)

Today is Joan Didion’s birthday, and I’ve been meaning to write a post about her ever since I re-read The Year of Magical Thinking a couple of months ago. I know that December is a difficult month for her, because that is when her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, first became sick from the illness that would eventually take her life, and also because December is when Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, died from a heart attack while Quintana was unconscious in the hospital. These tragic events led Didion to write The Year of Magical Thinking, an amazing book that would eventually earn her the National Book Award.

I re-read her book recently in anticipation of my own sad December, as the first anniversary of Babycake’s birth draws nearer and nearer. I was preparing myself for the inevitable sadness most new mothers feel as their babies turn one, but I was also afraid that memories of our birth experience would creep to the surface again, after I have worked so hard to get past them.

Didion’s writing is filled with a melancholy I haven’t come across often elsewhere. When I taught a college freshman composition class, the very first assignment of the semester was for my students to read her essay “On Going Home” and then write a descriptive piece of their own, recounting a memory from their pasts. I was always amazed by how personal and revealing these short writing assignments were, and how much these students, most of them fresh out of high school, were willing to share with me, a complete stranger. I can only think that Didion herself, with her honest glimpse into the world of her family’s home, was influential enough to allow these young writers to share their own struggles with drugs, alcoholism, and the deaths of loved ones in such a candid and honest way.

And so it was that I sought solace in her “magical thinking,” so to speak. As she attempted to process the loss of her husband while caring for her daughter, she reconstructed the events that led to his death and analyzed the moments they shared together in life. I guess I hoped to re-examine my own experiences, almost a year after the fact, to make sense of them, too.

Several years ago, before I read the book the first time, I listened to an interview with Didion on NPR’s show, Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, who is known for her ability to politely ask difficult questions with amazing sensitivity. I distinctly remember two points within the interview. One was when Gross asked Didion if, after examining the issue of death so closely, she was herself afraid to die. Didion responded that no, she wasn’t, because she wasn’t leaving anyone behind. At that point, she choked up, and Gross allowed her to take a break.

When the show came back on, Gross told Didion that the winner of the National Book Award had just been announced, and Gross was pleased and honored to say that the winner was, in fact, Didion. It was a great moment in an otherwise difficult interview, but the fact remained that the book would not have been written, and thus, the award not won, if Didion’s husband and daughter had not died.

I didn’t find what I was looking for with my second reading of The Year of Magical Thinking, and I found myself relieved with that realization. While I will always feel sadness about Babycake’s birth, I’ve found a sense of peace, and I’m looking forward to his birthday with great anticipation. I know that, even though I mourned for a long time, there was no death, and though my experience was transforming, it doesn’t begin to compare with the sadness of Didion’s December.

Today is Joan Didion’s birthday, and I hope she is able to celebrate it happily.

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